Slang: How Invented Words Become Part of Our Language

This post was written by Aimee Bushong.

If there is one thing I learned during my two-year adventure in South America, it is that even though most of South American countries speak Spanish, (excluding Brazil, Guyana, French Guyana and Suriname) each country has its own slang. I lived in Chile, only forty-five minutes from the border of Argentina, yet right across the border into Argentina, the slang is completely different. I thought that was an interesting phenomenon since, in the US, most slang is widespread from state to state. However, if you compare the US with the UK or Australia or South Africa, the slang of those countries is also completely different. I just thought it bizarre that two countries so close together that use the same language would at least know of one another’s slang words, yet when I went to Argentina and used slang from Chile, the Argentineans had no idea what I was saying.

As an English learner, slang is one of the hardest aspects of the language to understand. Every language has slang and sometimes nobody knows where some of the slang words or phrases come from. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are using slang. For example, in the US, one of the most common slang phrases is ‘what’s up?’ It means, ‘what is new in your life?’. But people from the US have been using this phrase for so long that it is not even considered slang anymore, but it actually is. So where did all of this slang come from and how does it evolve?

According to an online dictionary, slang is defined as ‘very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language.’ Slang can also be described as nonstandard words or phrases (lexical innovations), which tend to originate in subcultures within a society. As a matter of fact, English slang started as language used mostly by criminals in 16th and 17th century England and developed primarily in saloons and gambling houses. School children at this time were taught that using slang was taboo and improper, but children will be children and innately want to do what is forbidden. So, slang began making its way amongst the youth. As time went on, slang began showing up in popular culture such as plays and books and, in the early 1920’s, slang had gained the interest of popular writers. During the post-World War I era, society gained new attitudes about slang and there was now a demand for slang in entertainment, mass media, and fiction.

Today, slang is embedded in our culture and people use it everyday even though they might not realize they are using it. But not all US slang is universal either. Slang often suggests that the person utilizing the words or phrases is familiar with the hearer’s group or subgroup; it can be considered a distinguishing factor of in-group identity. Different slang is used amongst different cultures, popular interests, occupations or where you live. For example, I used to work at a ski resort in the Rocky Mountains and all the skiers had their own slang, which was only known amongst skiers. If we said some of these slang words in a group of non-skiers, or in a state where there is no snow, no one would know what we were talking about. For example, the term “freshies” is a word used to describe fresh, untouched snow that fell the night before. “Pow pow” is also a word used to describe very light, fluffy snow that has the consistency of powder. “Gondy” is a contraction of the word gondola. And there are many more. I actually had to learn these slang words when I first started living at the ski area. I recall the first time I heard the word “gondy,” I had just moved to the ski area and was getting to know people around town. A local woman that I had met was taking me around introducing me to people and after introducing me to one particular guy she said, “That’s Matt. He’s gondy.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought maybe he was a very spiritual, peaceful person therefore people referred to him as the famous Indian peace leader, Gandhi. Only later did I discover that Matt worked in the gondola, therefore he was “goody,” as was everyone else who worked in the gondola. I was actually “gondy” for a while too and my job was checking people’s ski passes before they got in the gondola or “gondy.” Skier slang is different from surfer slang, which is different from any other subgroups’ slang, and the only way to know it, is to be a part of that group.

Slang expressions are created in basically the same way as standard speech. As stated in the now discontinued Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, “expressions may take form as metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech.”  In addition, it is noted that “the words used as slang may be new coinages, existing words may acquire new meanings, narrow meanings of words may become generalized, words may be abbreviated, etc. However, in order for the expression to survive, it must be widely adopted by the group who uses it.”

Slang is a way in which languages change and are renewed. The slang that young people use today is completely different from the slang of decades past. It is even different than the slang that my generation used to use and I am not that old. One of the most common slang words in English today is the word “cool,”- something that is excellent or very good. But it wasn’t always that way. For example, in the 1950’s, young people used the word “swell,” to describe good things, a word that is not used today at all in that context. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, “cool” started to be used but it also morphed into the word “groovy” which also is not used today amongst popular slang. In the 1980’s the word “wicked” or “sweet” was used alongside or instead of “cool.” In the 1990’s, something cool was also “dope” or “bad” (bad meaning good.) And in the 2000’s there is “ redic”, “redonculous” or “sick” or “whack” and a slew of many other slang words that mean cool, some of which are not appropriate for this article, but you “get my drift” (you understand).

In conclusion, the whole world uses slang and some of my students have even taught me the slang in their respective languages. ESL teachers at Bridge even have their own slang that is specific to the BridgeEnglish Denver teachers that are there now, and, in a few years, new teachers will come and invent their own slang words and so on and so-forth. Slang is a fascinating phenomenon of language and many universal English slang words are actually now being put in the dictionary and are considered part of the English lexicon, making slang come full circle; starting out as a real word, morphing into a slang word, used so much people have forgotten the original word from where the slang word was derived and finally the slang word is considered a real part of the language. That is “whack!”

If there is one thing I learned during my two-year adventure in South America, it is that even though most of South American countries speak Spanish, (excluding Brazil, Guyana, French Guyana and Suriname) each country has its own slang. I lived in Chile, only forty-five minutes from the border of Argentina, yet right across the border into Argentina, the slang is completely different. I thought that was an interesting phenomenon since, in the US, most slang is widespread from state to state. However, if you compare the US with the UK or Australia or South Africa, the slang of those countries is also completely different. I just thought it bizarre that two countries so close together that use the same language would at least know of one another’s slang words, yet when I went to Argentina and used slang from Chile, the Argentineans had no idea what I was saying.

As an English learner, slang is one of the hardest aspects of the language to understand. Every language has slang and sometimes nobody knows where some of the slang words or phrases come from. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are using slang. For example, in the US, one of the most common slang phrases is ‘what’s up?’ It means, ‘what is new in your life?’. But people from the US have been using this phrase for so long that it is not even considered slang anymore, but it actually is. So where did all of this slang come from and how does it evolve?

According to an online dictionary, slang is defined as ‘very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language.’ Slang can also be described as nonstandard words or phrases (lexical innovations), which tend to originate in subcultures within a society. As a matter of fact, English slang started as language used mostly by criminals in 16th and 17th century England and developed primarily in saloons and gambling houses. School children at this time were taught that using slang was taboo and improper, but children will be children and innately want to do what is forbidden. So, slang began making its way amongst the youth. As time went on, slang began showing up in popular culture such as plays and books and, in the early 1920’s, slang had gained the interest of popular writers. During the post-World War I era, society gained new attitudes about slang and there was now a demand for slang in entertainment, mass media, and fiction.

Today, slang is embedded in our culture and people use it everyday even though they might not realize they are using it. But not all US slang is universal either. Slang often suggests that the person utilizing the words or phrases is familiar with the hearer’s group or subgroup; it can be considered a distinguishing factor of in-group identity. Different slang is used amongst different cultures, popular interests, occupations or where you live. For example, I used to work at a ski resort in the Rocky Mountains and all the skiers had their own slang, which was only known amongst skiers. If we said some of these slang words in a group of non-skiers, or in a state where there is no snow, no one would know what we were talking about. For example, the term “freshies” is a word used to describe fresh, untouched snow that fell the night before. “Pow pow” is also a word used to describe very light, fluffy snow that has the consistency of powder. “Gondy” is a contraction of the word gondola. And there are many more. I actually had to learn these slang words when I first started living at the ski area. I recall the first time I heard the word “gondy,” I had just moved to the ski area and was getting to know people around town. A local woman that I had met was taking me around introducing me to people and after introducing me to one particular guy she said, “That’s Matt. He’s gondy.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought maybe he was a very spiritual, peaceful person therefore people referred to him as the famous Indian peace leader, Gandhi. Only later did I discover that Matt worked in the gondola, therefore he was “goody,” as was everyone else who worked in the gondola. I was actually “gondy” for a while too and my job was checking people’s ski passes before they got in the gondola or “gondy.” Skier slang is different from surfer slang, which is different from any other subgroups’ slang, and the only way to know it, is to be a part of that group.

Slang expressions are created in basically the same way as standard speech. As stated in the now discontinued Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, “expressions may take form as metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech.”  In addition, it is noted that “the words used as slang may be new coinages, existing words may acquire new meanings, narrow meanings of words may become generalized, words may be abbreviated, etc. However, in order for the expression to survive, it must be widely adopted by the group who uses it.”

Slang is a way in which languages change and are renewed. The slang that young people use today is completely different from the slang of decades past. It is even different than the slang that my generation used to use and I am not that old. One of the most common slang words in English today is the word “cool,”- something that is excellent or very good. But it wasn’t always that way. For example, in the 1950’s, young people used the word “swell,” to describe good things, a word that is not used today at all in that context. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, “cool” started to be used but it also morphed into the word “groovy” which also is not used today amongst popular slang. In the 1980’s the word “wicked” or “sweet” was used alongside or instead of “cool.” In the 1990’s, something cool was also “dope” or “bad” (bad meaning good.) And in the 2000’s there is “ redic”, “redonculous” or “sick” or “whack” and a slew of many other slang words that mean cool, some of which are not appropriate for this article, but you “get my drift” (you understand).

In conclusion, the whole world uses slang and some of my students have even taught me the slang in their respective languages. ESL teachers at Bridge even have their own slang that is specific to the BridgeEnglish Denver teachers that are there now, and, in a few years, new teachers will come and invent their own slang words and so on and so-forth. Slang is a fascinating phenomenon of language and many universal English slang words are actually now being put in the dictionary and are considered part of the English lexicon, making slang come full circle; starting out as a real word, morphing into a slang word, used so much people have forgotten the original word from where the slang word was derived and finally the slang word is considered a real part of the language. That is “whack!”

4 thoughts on “Slang: How Invented Words Become Part of Our Language

  1. Interesting article. A few nitpicky observations and comments: “wicked” and “sweet” are not so much 80s expression as they are typical British slang that made it to the USA when a lot of UK bands and travelers came over, on the music scene in the 1980s. Both are still very common in Britain, still being said daily in 2015. I never heard “sweet” in the US until the late 90s – and it was from a gal who had lived in London. “Whack” on the other hand, has not only been around in American slang a lot longer than you suggest, but also I never understood it to mean cool or anything else positive, but the exact opposite. Say, your bike gets stolen, or you buy some bad weed, your sympathetic slang-loving friend might say “aw that is WHACK!” “Ridic” (or as you wrote it “redic”) as short for ridiculous, is something I have been saying and hearing for at least 25 years, it’s not really slang, just an abbreviation. Meanwhile, “groovy” (used in a manner that was both self-conscious and bit tongue-in-cheek, like a joke about outmoded slang) definitely made a resurgence in the 80s that continues today. “Groovy footwear!” your queeny fashion pal might say upon observing your green suede platforms. Incidentally, I moved to New Orleans this year and the local slang here is absolutely fascinating!

    • I think people from Boston would be wicked mad at you if you tried to tell them that “wicked” as something good or intense came over from Britain in the 1980’s.

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